Skip to main content

The Profanation of Opera: Music and Drama on Film

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - PROPERA (The Profanation of Opera: Music and Drama on Film)

Reporting period: 2019-03-01 to 2020-02-29

PROPERA - The Profanation of Opera: Music and Drama on Film aims to shed new light on the relationship between opera and film. It draws on the hypothesis that the mediation of film displaces, broadens, and enriches our experience and understanding of the operatic genre in ways that have not yet been fully explored in their aesthetic and political potential. To fill this gap, the proposed research on the interplay between the two genres and media over the last hundred years focuses on a variety of objects including not only opera-films, but also mainstream and experimental movies that incorporate opera in relevant and thought-provoking ways. As result of these analytical and theoretical effort, the project challenged the identification of opera as a live performance art belonging to an inherently conservative tradition while also reimagining the past, present, and future of the operatic genre in a media-saturated world. The project was especially committed to overcome the high/low divide against the backdrop of which opera and cinema are often perceived and foster new forms of appropriation by new audiences. The project also created bridges between scholarly research, artistic practice, and public engagement.
The outgoing phase of the PROPERA project took place at the University of Chicago. I was integrated in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, where I worked with my co-supervisor (Prof. David J. Levin), while also building close ties of collaboration with colleagues from other departments. Besides pursuing my research at the Film Studies Center and the Regenstein Library, I regularly participated in graduate workshops and served as a respondent or panelist in several academic events. Among my activities at the University of Chicago I should underline the organization of a series of two-day symposia on “Opera Through the Eyes of Film” in which I also participated as a speaker. The incoming phase of the PROPERA project took place at the NOVA FCSH at the CESEM, where I worked with Prof. Mário Vieira de Carvalho. My main achievement during this period was the organization of the International Conference “Opera and City: Technologies of Displacement and Dissemination”, which took place at the National Theater of São Carlos (Lisbon Opera House) and the Cinemateca Portuguesa on June 24-25. During these two and a half years I also organized two workshops titled “MUSAS—The Music of the Arts” at the CESEM/NOVA-FCSH and the Culturgest in Lisbon. I participated in various conferences, symposia, and workshops, four of them as an invited or keynote speaker. Being the primary result of my research, these papers led to a number of articles (deliverables), among which 3 are published and 3 are forthcoming. Most of these articles will become chapters in an upcoming book tentatively titled “The Profanation of Opera: Music and Drama on Film” on which I’m currently working with a view to submitting a book proposal to the new book series “Opera Lab: Explorations in History, Technology, and Performance” of the University of Chicago Press by the end of 2019.
In order to accomplish the theoretical goals of the PROPERA project, I employed a methodology that can be characterized as historical-analytical, theoretical-philosophical, and comparative. I made survey of filmic-operatic objects, in the context of which I viewed and analyzed around 50 opera films, nearly 75 videos of opera stagings, over 100 short and long-length features (incorporating sonic, dramatic or aesthetic elements from, or references to, opera), and nearly 10 hard-to-classify inter-media objects. This more empirical dimension of my research, carried out with a preoccupation to cover a variety of objects representative from different geographical latitudes (including Guo Baochang “The Dream of the Bridal Chamber” [2005] and Manthia Diawara “An Opera from the World” [2017]) and historical periods (from Méliés’s “La damnation de Faust” [1903] to Thomas Adès “The Exterminating Angel” [2006]), takes into consideration the increasing number of new studies on issues of audio-visual reproduction, intermediality, and remediation that turn out to be crucial in the debate on opera and film.

My research led to a new perspective regarding the periodization of the history of the interaction between opera and film. It became clear that the encounter between the two genres and media occurred against the background of preoccupations with their evolving prominence, prestige, and popularity. It can be said that a first major period (up to the post-II World War years) evolved under the aegis of cinema’s “anxiety of influence”: the new art had first and foremost to guarantee its autonomy and looked at opera as an eminent precursor whose legacy it aspired to prolong and enrich), whereas a second major period lasted over the whole second half of the twentieth-century under the aegis of opera’s “anxiety of survival”: under the pressure of modernism, opera experienced a major crisis and seemed threatened in its existence, therefore leading to the generalized idea that film could provide opera with a means of survival, renewal, or resurrection (a process that was exacerbated in the 1970s and 1980, the golden age of opera films). In this context, a new, third period can be said to begin around 2000, when for the first time composers and librettists turn to pre-existing movies as a source of inspiration for their musical-theatrical collaborations.

My research also proposes a new vocabulary to analyze opera on screen, one that starts by recognizing that the task of filming the staging of an opera cannot be equated with that of filming an opera (which also implies that filming an opera has more in common with staging an opera than with filming the staging of an opera). With regard to videos of opera stagings, I advocate a close liaison between the “remediating video” and the “remediated staging”, while also avoiding the fetishism of liveness that tends to infiltrate the debate on the remediation of opera. In other words, I claim that the true opposition is not between liveness and mediatization but rather between a “traditional” and a “critical” way of fostering their interaction.

With regard to purely cinematic objects, I organized my research around thematic constellations (around topics such as spectatorship; technological reproduction; class, gender, and sexuality). I was particularly keen to distinguish different conceptions of “operaticness” that pervade the above-mentioned topics and to shed light on the fact that some of them do not include sonic characteristics. This led to yet a another conclusion: that the “boom” of the opera film in the 1970s and 1980s can actually be explained by the overcoming of the so-called “great divide” between high art and mass culture that also favored intermediality, parodist and ironic approaches, and technological reproduction. In my research I demonstrate that opera played a crucial role in this debate, which in turn contributed to a new perception of opera that paved the way to more recent developments: including the live cinecast phenomenon since 2006 and the multiplication of new operas based on films (a slow trend that started around 2000 but only now is being recognized as such).